Police killings often have an interesting political impact that needs to be told, and that’s the case with the police shooting of Albert Johnson in Toronto in 1979.
In her powerful article in the Saturday Star on Oct. 23, Ena Chadha recounts how Albert Johnson, a 35-year-old Black man in Toronto, was shouting in the laneway behind his home. A neighbour, whose son was a police officer, called the police, who chased him into his house. Police broke down his door and then shot and killed him in front of his young daughter.
It was Aug. 26, 1979.
The Black community began a series of large and angry demonstrations. Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey, a leading member of the Metro Toronto Board of Commissioners of Police (now the Toronto Police Services Board), responded by asking Catholic Cardinal Emmett Carter to look into police/community relations. Cardinal Carter was seen as a respected and trusted member of the community.
I was mayor of Toronto at the time, and had been at my cottage when the shooting occurred. When I returned to the city, I used a luncheon speech on Sept. 10 to voice my concerns. For many, I said, “Mr. Johnson’s death is a result of systemic behaviour by the policing agency, representing a racist attitude or a shoot-first attitude — or both.”
Johnson was the eighth person shot and killed by Toronto police in a 13-month period. Two of those killed were Black, three were immigrants with limited English, and four were in mental crisis.
In my speech I said change had to come at the level of the police commission to ensure this did not happen again. “If the Police Commission said any officer who called a Black a (N-word) would be reprimanded, that practice would stop … If the commission trained officers to have a host of responses to domestic disputes, the job of officers would be made much easier.”
I said an independent review board was needed for complaints against the police, that police had to be trained to deal with the complex issues raised in Toronto, rather than relying on the power of a gun.
The speech caused a sensation. The Toronto Sun’s headline was “Sewell should shut up,” and a day later “Sewell: our worst mayor ever.” The Star’s headline cited Godfrey as saying “Sewell fans the flames on racial crisis,” and quoted North York Mayor Mel Lastman as saying “Sewell tactics stir up mobs.”
The Toronto Police Association raised $8,000 to place newspaper advertisements telling people to write to their councillors showing their support for police. Coun. Art Eggleton placed a motion before city council censuring me for my remarks, and council endorsed that motion.
Godfrey, with police chief Harold Adamson, then attended a Sunday morning meeting of the Police Association, and said I was attacking the cop on the beat, that I was not being fair to cops, and that the meeting should censure me. The association members present voted unanimously to state they lacked confidence in me.
Cardinal Carter’s report was released at the end of October and it made numerous recommendations for change in policing in Toronto. “I listened to one horror story after another,” he stated, “in which the recurrent theme was always that there was no mechanism by which a complaint could be properly placed and a fair hearing ensured.
“Indeed it seemed to be a fairly general opinion that not only was there no possibility of seeking recourse in this matter but that it was even dangerous to do so. Retaliation by police officers or the fear of such retaliation is widespread.
“One distinguished member of the community told me that having insisted on placing a complaint he did so according to the established procedures and mentioned in passing that he had never even had a parking ticket. The very next day his car was ticketed. This could have been a coincidence except for the fact that the car was parked in his own driveway.
“A Black man who was harassed on the steps of his own house was asked by an officer if he planned to lodge a complaint. When he answered he considered such a procedure useless, the officer smiled and said: ‘You are perfectly right because I would simply have reported that your description fitted that of a wanted man which we have in our hands.’ ”
What Cardinal Carter did not know, and what I learned only 42 years later when reading Chadha’s article, was that Albert Johnson had had a number of frightening interactions with police in the months before his death. He had been so upset about being harassed by police on several occasions that he went to the Ontario Human Rights Commission to express his concerns.
The OHRC was not a body that normally dealt with complaints about the police, but members of the public went to them for lack of an alternative. Johnson did not know where else to turn, and in the occasions he visited the OHRC, he told them he feared the police would kill him.
The OHRC decided its best course of action would be to send a letter to the police setting out Johnson’s concerns. The OHRC had established a protocol to ensure its letters were dealt with expeditiously, so that its letter concerning Johnson’s complaint was forwarded both to the police commission and the chief of police. The letter was received on Aug. 22, 1979. Johnson was killed four days later, as though it was the exact kind of reprisal Cardinal Carter had found with others who made or wanted to make a complaint about police behaviour.
As the chief of police Harold Adamson would clearly have known about the letter. It’s not known if he shared it with other senior officials. In any case, the letter was withheld from Cardinal Carter, from me, and from the public. If it had been known that Johnson had complained about the fear of being killed by police and that he had been killed four days after the police learned of that complaint, the public perception of the case would have been substantially changed. That information was withheld to protect the police. It was shameful.
My term of mayor was overshadowed by this event, and I was called a cop hater. In the municipal election at the end of 1980, the Police Association was very public of its desire that I should not be re-elected, and I lost to Eggleton by about one per cent of the votes cast. But my speech did have a positive impact: the police did not kill another Toronto resident until after I was out of office — a 16-month hiatus.
But now, with Chadha’s article, we have a better accounting of the whole story about Albert Johnson’s death at the hands of Toronto police. As a friend said to me, `If you live long enough, you get to see some of the chickens come home to roost.’
This content was originally published here.